The end is near.
I finally did some actual sightseeing. I took a tour of the opera house that included going up on its roof, went back to Cefalù, and wandered around in search of street art. I also ate out for the first time since I’ve been here, which I figured I needed to do at least once this trip. The street art was definitely the most frustrating and the most worthwhile at the same time. Palermo has a huge street art scene, and there’s even an organization that maps important graffiti in the city. The last time I was here, a friend in the know showed me a truly incredible pocket of layered art going back to the 50s, but sadly I wasn’t able to find it again (the neighborhood it’s in is a warren of twisty streets and I just don’t know it well enough to find my way). But I did manage to find some really beautiful and interesting work. I think this is one of the most important elements of Palermo as a place – street art here says a lot about the state of the city and Sicily’s place in the world, the ways the new generation is trying to break away, and the visual language that’s still as essential to expression here as it was 900 years ago.
I’ve pretty much done what I can in the archives in Palermo, and over the past 10 months of archival work I’ve developed an actual shape for this dissertation. Amazingly, the pieces of my project that are the most important – the chapters on spices and copper – were the easiest to research and took the least time. But in retrospect, that has a lot to do with what was available and what I felt was worth my time. While I still have bits of research left to do, I’m mostly switching gears to writing pretty soon.
I’m about to dive into a whole bunch of writing thanks to two articles I proposed a few months ago that I didn’t expect to get accepted. One is (hopefully) going to be a book chapter for a collected volume on medieval medicine and pop culture. I’m really excited for this because it will give me the chance to take the kind of writing I do here and make it a bit more professional, and also get editorial feedback on it. The other article has been sort of provisionally accepted to a journal based on the abstract, but I think the manuscript itself will still be subject to refusal. I think that writing this is going to be extremely worthwhile, though, because I proposed the article as the story of the relationship between Muslim Sicily’s silk trade and Norman Sicily’s medicinal drug trade. I hadn’t thought about my research that way at all until I saw the call for papers for this journal, and started to think about all of the silk industry references I had found back when I was reading geniza documents. It completely changed the way I saw my research, and I felt it was worth sending in the abstract just to begin thinking about how I wanted to write that chapter. Which brings me to an important point – I think that sending in abstracts is more important as a grad student than having articles accepted. The process of writing about your project, learning how to articulate it and how to think about it in new ways, is in itself a way to work towards finishing. And if a proposal gets accepted, you know what works and you now have an opportunity to get both exposure and feedback.
This upcoming writing is sort of formalizing a writing method that I’ve been half-intentionally engaging in for a while, which is finding smaller writing projects within my bigger project by taking on other tasks at the same time. It’s a classic time management technique to take a task and break it up into smaller pieces, and that’s essential when you’re writing something as massive as a dissertation, or even an article. But it’s easy to just break up the project into chunks of writing, and I find it really difficult to work that way because I get stuck really easily – I only see the big argument I’m trying to make and I can’t focus on the pieces. I use one writing technique to help me work through my evidence, which my undergrad adviser had us do: the PSA or Primary Source Analysis. It’s a piece of descriptive writing in which you write about a small interesting aspect of a source or a theme within it, but without a thesis. This helps you figure out what you want to say about the source and what aspects are important to your project – I’ll write a few PSAs and string them together and that becomes a first draft. The problem after that is that I still jump to the bigger argument – I have trouble finding the small thesis in component parts of the larger project. But if I forget about the bigger project all together and just focus on the topic I’ve decided to cover within one chapter or one section, I can find just the narrative that makes sense for that topic, and then figure out how it relates to the larger project later on. Because I’m still working within the frame of the larger project – same time, place, and general subject matter – I’m not going to wander off, so I have the freedom to find the story that makes sense with my evidence without worrying about why it’s important.
I used this method while I was applying for funding for this year. Because I was preparing for orals, writing my prospectus, and applying for funding all at the same time, I was thinking about my dissertation in three different and complementary ways. Orals helped me frame my project historiographically, the prospectus helped me nail down the specifics, and the funding applications helped me map my research plan. But writing 3-page funding applications also forced me to describe my project succinctly and clearly, and figure out exactly which aspects of the historiography were most central. Doing these at the same time helped focus the entire thing and got me doing the intellectual work of the dissertation before I had gotten into the meat of the research.
As I’m getting into all this writing, though, I need to do some serious housekeeping. And it’s name is Zotero. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a huge problem in the way that I write: I don’t write citations along the way. But as I’ve gotten better at organizing my work and actually taking useful notes, I have an easier time putting my argument down in a document without losing steam every time I need to insert a reference. It also helps that now that I’m done with my oral exams I have a really clear sense of historiography, so I don’t need to keep running off to find every major work on the history of medieval medicine. So it’s time for me to set up my workstation to support rapid, easy citations. I already have Zotero as a Word plugin, I just need to start inputting my sources in its library so that when I want to enter a citation I just need the author and page number. My game plan is to go by category, so that I’ll be likely to have all my sources already lined up for me while I’m writing about the geniza, or spices, or medicine.
This week I went back to a favorite site in Palermo and discovered something new. When I first came here three years ago for a pre-dissertation trip (an amazing benefit that my department does for dipping your toes into research), I went to every Norman-era site in the city. My first and most important stop was the Norman Palace, the site of the Cappella Palatina or Palace Chapel, built for Roger II. The Cappella Palatina was the thing that got me into Norman Sicily – my undergrad adviser suggested it as a good focus for a seminar paper on cross-cultural interaction, and I’ve just kept going since then (that was 9 years ago). It’s a really stunning little space that has a lot of visual jumping-off points for Siculo-Norman history, because a lot of other surviving Norman objects and architectural spaces used it as a reference. When I went back this week, I discovered that the historical organization that runs it had set up a new companion exhibit. Following up on how impressed I was with the archaeological museum, this was a similarly modern museum exhibit, that fills in the historical context, provides detailed looks at elements of the chapel that are difficult to see (because they are small or very high up), and adds other related objects like pottery, textiles, and manuscripts that round out the material story. It really helped bolster some of my dissertation’s argument, and provided me with examples of copper objects that I wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise, including some green-glazed pottery and enamels. And because I’m exactly the target audience for this shit, I bought the companion exhibition book, which I can display on my shelf under the guise of “research” (no, but really, I’m pulling a ton of citations from this thing).
Next week more writing, so maybe no research progress post, but perhaps more actual essays (and food content?!), we’ll see.